What’s in a Movie Title?
A film’s title is almost always the first impression it makes on a prospective viewer.
Some are creative excerpts from scenes or dialogue, others statements aligned to the theme or mood. There are the one-word verbs and singular nouns that will obviously be of significance, and character-driven titles that are usually names or occupations. Some, most often in the case of sequels, are clearly unimaginative by design because familiarity is more important, while others treat this aspect of the production as part of the overall creative process.
Ultimately, though, how much weight does a title hold in conjunction with the film itself?
Considering the enormous expense spent on marketing for studio releases, it’s clear that marketability in these cases is perhaps the biggest issue when deciding on a suitable collection of words to be plastered on the poster above the photo-shopped stars or stamped at the end of a trailer. The title shouldn’t be confusing, but rather easily define the role(s) the known actors are to play by way of being either an occupation, location (high or low socioeconomic environments, exotic locals and metropolitan landmarks all come with connotations as to who the actors will portray), verb (usually in the past-tense), or in fewer circumstances an item or object.
Book adaptations are the exception to the rule here, as the film needs to sold to the large number of people familiar with the source material, even if the title is not overly enticing (The Lovely Bones, August: Osage County and A Clockwork Orange to name a few).
Independent releases, especially a film-maker’s first outing or a change in direction, will take more of a risk. Where larger releases will have titles that appear obvious after the opening credits, more experimental outings will play with the concept of the title as a riddle, to make sense at a particular moment during the run-time. This shifts the title from insignificant formality, to a playful, relevant component, and means that to fully appreciate what they’re watching, the viewer must be familiar with the work beforehand. Chasing Amy (1997), Kevin Smith’s third feature film and his first foray into the realm of maturity, is perhaps the best example of this. Comic book co-creator Holden McNeil devotes himself to chasing the unattainable Alyssa Jones, a girl he is immediately attracted to, and whose name is definitely not Amy. It isn’t until the film reaches its third act that the significance of this name is revealed, and in being in the much-anticipated (and now much-revered) carefully chosen few spoken lines by Silent Bob, the resolution is outstanding.
Having a character name in a title immediately encourages the viewer to concentrate on that person, and assume that they are at the center of their surroundings, with the evolution of the plot mirrored in evolution of personality or motivation (Amelie, for instance). This makes Chasing Amy all the more ingenious. Is Alyssa the Amy we’re meant to be focusing on? Or have we missed something important? The title in this case is not so much focused on a particular person, but rather the lesser-used thematic explanation, as the narrative isn’t focused on Alyssa but rather the utterly human feeling of longing for something despite knowing its likely end.
A film’s title does matter, then, even if sometimes it’s just in the sense that it can be recommended or sorted alphabetically because of it. Sometimes a producer will be so enamored with one that it will be willing to share with a previous movie, such as The Gift (the 2000 Sam Raimi psychological thriller and 2015 stalker thriller) and The Hole (a 2001 Keira Knightley starrer and 2009 Joe Dante 3D horror), but really these examples are separated quite significantly in tone and release, and both fit within the singular noun category quite suitably. Of course, while they matter, they’re not always good, and the poorest examples are those that are utterly bland to suit appropriately bland movies. The extent to which a title can convince the movie’s target audience that its worth watching is diminishing with the rise of information available online months and even years before release, but a good brand is something that can create a fan and even a cult following. As classic a film as it is, being a defining chapter in American cinema of the ‘60’s, one can’t help but feel that Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) would regardless of its quality have left a smaller footprint if its title was more obvious.
A movie should be able to be viewed and enjoyed without any prior knowledge whatsoever, and in fact this is often when they’re most enjoyed, and I’m confident in stating that the title is far from the most important component, but if it can offer another layer without spoiling the events or cheating in a narrative sense, then why not aim for the most creative possible? A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but some are smelt for longer than others.
Listed below are some examples of titles that fall within the aforementioned categories:
Creative excerpts from scenes or dialogue: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), He Died With A Felafel in His Hand (2001)
One-word verbs: Taken (2008), Fallen (1998), The Killing (1956), Drive (2011)